The Government, like the Pied Piper, marches the nation back to Dickensian Britain

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“Please spread the word. We need to end the ‘state is like household’ analogy. The main constraint on govt. spending is the productive capacity and resources in the economy and the risk of inflation – not the size of the budget deficit.”

Josh Ryan-Collins on Twitter

The Pied Piper of Hamelin playing his pipe and leading the children away from the town
The Pied Piper of Hamelin, print, Henry Marsh, after John La Farge (MET, 21.65.4). John La viola, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, after dragging his feet and protesting in his speech to the CBI that, given the external global circumstances driving the cost-of-living increases, ‘there is no measure that any government could take’, has now done an about-turn. After telling the public not so long back that his top priority as the dangers of the pandemic receded was to restore the public finances, the ongoing and worsening supply crisis has finally forced his reluctant hand, albeit as a temporary and inadequate measure as many charities and other anti-poverty groups have already noted in their analyses. He fails, yet again, to get to grips with the underlying structural problems caused by the policy decisions of successive governments. Decisions which have led to a low wage economy, and over decades driven poverty and inequality which has benefited businesses at the expense of working people. Existing problems which have severely exacerbated the current unstable economic situation.

It is, however, once again too little and too late. An afterthought for a man who appeared last week for the first time in the Sunday Times Rich List, who seems to have no concept of the difficulties in ordinary people’s lives. Andrew Harrop, of the Fabian Society, described the Chancellor’s measures as a ‘sticking plaster’. We have had a lot of those over the last decade as government austerity has resulted in the inevitable breakdown of public and social infrastructure, and of society and its values. Half-baked policies have glossed over the growing hardship this government has caused by doing nothing except revel in its rhetoric and smoothing over of the truth with its propaganda.

Societal breakdown is not an unavoidable destination, it is the result of the deliberate failure by the government to enact the policies that would keep its citizens safe and secure in a functioning, fair economy and ensure that in hard times it acts to cushion the blows caused by events out of its control. Furthermore, whilst many, with their hearts probably in the right place, talk about creating a fairer welfare system and higher benefits as a way out of this situation, in the long term that is not the answer, and buys into more dependence on the state, which, frankly, has already done its utmost through reforming the welfare system to punish those citizens who find themselves in involuntary unemployment or precarious employment, or unable to work through illness.

The solution lies in creating a fairer society that is predicated on better wages and terms and conditions of employment, not so-called welfare ‘handouts’ to those who are disparagingly referred to as the ‘deserving poor.’ As Hannah Fearn wrote in the Independent this week: ‘Benefits do not support the poorest to live a self-determining and fulfilled life, but trap them in desperate cycles of poverty.’

It also lies in creating a high-quality public service sector, instead of the diminished one we have today, the implementation of a Job Guarantee to support people, as now in this current economic climate, and for those that cannot work, a properly funded social security system which gives people dignity and sufficient income to live on.

It was shameful to note that in his speech, the Chancellor, announcing his spending measures, said that the government would ‘not sit idly by’. That would be laughable if things were not so serious. For over more than ten years, the Conservative government has ‘sat idly by’, as it cut spending on public and social infrastructure to the bone, on the specious lie of unaffordability, couched in narratives of sound finance. This is therefore not a new phenomenon. The price we have paid for that lie as the pandemic raged has been made very clear. The public infrastructure upon which society relies, both in good and bad times, fell short, from the NHS to social care, education, local government and other vital institutions. Everything that binds society together with a cooperative purpose has been whittled away.

The emphasis on balanced budgets to serve an ideologically driven agenda that benefits global corporations rather than delivering public purpose, has led to rising poverty and inequality, which have translated into hunger and the growth of food banks as families have struggled to put food on the table and heat their homes. GIMMS has covered these disturbing subjects endlessly in its MMT Lens, week by week, month by month, year by year, since its launch in 2018. The fractures began in earnest a decade ago, with unnecessary austerity, and a false discourse that governments are limited in their spending policy choices by the tax they collect or what they can borrow, which, in turn, according to the orthodoxy, has consequences for future generations in terms of higher tax burdens. An obscene deception in the light of what has followed, and which arose out of a political choice driven by a pernicious economic ideology, and not financial necessity. It is time to hammer home that the line so often used by Sunak and others is false. The future burdens won’t be tax ones, but human and environmental ones created by governments which have failed consistently to invest today to create a truly productive and sustainable future tomorrow.

The global pandemic which affected and is still affecting production, followed by the outbreak of war in Ukraine, have only served to highlight our strategic planning deficiencies and interdependence. Ukraine and Russia play a major role in global food markets (not to mention oil and gas) which, when increasingly combined with the growing consequences of climate change on food production, with India imposing a ban on wheat exports as severe heatwaves have damaged crops, and East Africa in the grip of a relentless drought, only serves to emphasise the real costs for governments which have prioritised keeping the global corporatised economic order functioning, and the capitalist gravy train, predicated on exploitation, rolling. The tsunami of climate change is bearing down upon us, and yet, the government still sees the future as being defined by increasing growth in consumption, regardless of its impact on the planet. We apparently have to make up for the losses of the last two years, even if that means abandoning our climate promises which now seem to have been lost somewhere in the ether.

Instead of focusing on sound, consistent, long-term strategies to secure food and renewable energy domestically, governments have allowed the global corporate juggernaut to dictate the pace, thus securing its power, influence, and wealth. But as we are belatedly discovering, the ‘Just in Time’ world in which we live has distinct disadvantages. Nature, disease, and geopolitics combined, have exposed the weaknesses of a decaying unipolar economic system, which, until recently, has based its ideas on the finite nature of money and persuaded an unaware public that there is no alternative. A system predicated not on cooperation but on dividing people and allowing, by design, an unfair distribution of real wealth and real resources.

The Global Financial Crash in 2008, the Pandemic and current economic uncertainties have changed all that, and governments have been driven, as a result, to ‘re-discover’ the power of the public purse to manage their economies in the face of the prospect of economic decline, although always with a view to constraining that spending at some future point in time, once an emergency is over. There is always a price to pay on this model of how government spends. But just when Sunak thought he could get back to ‘business as usual’, his plans were scuppered once again by the conflict in Ukraine.

Balancing the books is a perennial concern for all governments, sooner or later. The government should be a good manager of the economy by ensuring that the public and social infrastructure meets the needs of the people it serves, from individuals to communities and businesses, and by aiming to balance its spending with the very real resource constraints, which requires strategic planning. Instead, governments, the media and those working in think tanks, endlessly replay their messages of monetary scarcity which have played a cruel and destructive trick on the population. Such deceitful narratives ultimately constrain the actions that are needed to address poverty, inequality, environmental sustainability and planetary health. Should that, of course, be a government objective. However, these narratives are useful for governments who wish to avoid such actions. It doesn’t bode well for the now seemingly defunct concept of levelling up or addressing the climate emergency.

We are led to believe that government spending is constrained by taxation or borrowing, and the media without fail, reinforces those messages, as Larry Elliott did in an article in the Guardian at the end of April. On the one hand, journalists report the state of public services and other vital infrastructure, relate stories about how people are struggling to keep their heads above water and being obliged to use food banks or switch off their heating, and yet, in the next breath, in an astonishing display of cognitive dissonance, give their readers a blow-by-blow account of the state of the public finances, as if somehow it is of vital importance to know how well the Chancellor is delivering his fiscal objectives. Put the fear of God into a nation by focusing its attention, like a magician, on the wrong subject. It seems that they choose not to make a connection between government spending (or the lack of it) and the state of the nation. Those two things are not disparate subjects, they go together.

As the current government, like the Pied Piper, marches the nation back to Dickensian Britain, journalists should at least be challenging the accepted economic dogma which prevails, rather than reinforcing the message that sound finance trumps public purpose. That should be the role of the media. But then, of course, as Upton Sinclair so rightly observed, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

So, given his predilection for household budget accounting, it was not surprising that Rishi Sunak, the arbiter and promoter of sound finance, had to eat his words and do yet another about-turn, by stating that he will be imposing a ‘windfall tax’ on oil and gas companies (well sort of) so he can, as he claims, partly cover his spending pledges. Whilst some Conservatives are critical of the tax, suggesting it will reduce investment and goes against their low tax stance, (at least where the rich corporations are concerned), Labour’s calls over the last few months for a tax on extraordinary profits to help people manage their way through the energy crisis, thus have now been satisfied. Job done. That is, of course, if we believe the notion that has been drilled into the public consciousness that taxes fund government spending.

The government as the currency issuer has the capacity to spend what it needs to, to balance the economy in good times and keep it functioning during economic crises. It doesn’t have to go begging to rich people or large corporations to provide that funding, or impose windfall taxes, and nor does it have to borrow to do the same. That is all part of the smoke and mirrors that have created false narratives. The sequence is spend first, then tax, not the other way around.

The last two decades and more should have proved categorically that household budget economics, in terms of government spending, is a myth. The public is beginning to take note that there is always money to bail out ‘too big to fail’ banks and other large companies, fund wars or address the fallout from pandemics, when it suits the government to do so. As the contradictions become ever clearer, the public are slowly coming to understand the political nature of spending decisions, and that, by the same token, the UK government could, in the same way, create the money to fund public services and vital infrastructure, that poverty and inequality could be addressed to ensure that citizens have dignified and meaningful lives, and that the climate crisis could be tackled through legislation, and targeted spending and taxation policies, to drive change and force businesses to do or die.

As Josh Ryan-Collins, who is an associate professor in economics and finance at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose wrote in an article in the New Statesmen this week, ‘Government spending power is limited not by tax revenues or borrowing but by the productive capacity of the UK economy and political will.’

Ryan Collins, promoting a new co-authored working paper, ‘The self-financing state: An institutional analysis‘, published by the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP), which provides an in-depth analysis of the mechanics of the key institutions involved in UK government spending, demonstrates clearly in his article that the ‘British state always creates new money when it spends’. That is fundamental to what comes next.  It is the starting point for change.

The self-financing state: An institutional analysis

This paper is an institutional analysis of government expenditure, revenue collection and debt issuance operations in the United Kingdom.

 

So, while Chancellors, politicians, think tanks and journalists indulge in relaying myths that describe how governments spend, and keep the prevailing economic system functioning in the favour of capital, the reality is somewhat different.

A challenge to that understanding and the economic orthodoxy which drives it, is, however, underway.

The World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos this week has revealed the growing cracks. The realisation by the wealthy elites that the global economic system, which has created vast wealth for the few, whilst at the same time crippling poverty and inequalities in the distribution of real wealth for many others, is under threat. As working people in the global north wake up to their exploitation and the associated injustices, and those in the Global South begin to reject the economic solutions imposed by the north, under the tutelage of the US, its allies and the institutions which it controls – the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation, those that have benefited over decades may, at last, be facing a rude awakening which could force a rethink. Not that one is holding one’s breath! But it should not be surprising that the Establishment which has dictated the rules for decades, feels threatened in this time of flux and uncertainty. Things ‘ain’t what they used to be’ and the certainties are slipping away.

Reuters reported this week that world leaders, financiers and chief executives were leaving Davos with ‘an urgent sense of the need to reboot and redefine globalisation’. Their version of globalisation has, hitherto, not been about real cooperation in the service of humanity, rather it has been the exploitation of human labour and finite resources in the service of greed and profits.  Globalisation has not been about planetary flourishing, it has proved to be the exact opposite, favouring the few, a billionaire class who, as Oxfam pointed out this week, were increasing their fortunes by $1billion every two days. Not because they worked hard but because the system is rigged in their favour. A system which allows them to amass vast resources and pollute the planet with their excesses, while the rest labour in low wage economies as slaves.

Its dominant position has been ably assisted by the notion of monetary scarcity, which has been hugely damaging as countries in the global south have been weighed down by foreign debt and forced to accept punishing bailout regimes, which have, in turn, forced cuts to public spending and decimated public infrastructure. This is the common link between the global north and the global south. The toxic economic system which prevails and leads Sunak to focus on fiscal discipline rather than public purpose.

 

The MMT Podcast with Patricia Pino & Christian Reilly: #131 Fadhel Kaboub: Free Trade Isn’t Free: Food Sovereignty And Why It MattersPatricia and Christian talk to economist and President of the Global Institute For Sustainable Prosperity Professor Fadhel Kaboub about how global food and energy systems have been fostered to benefit the global north at the expense of the global south, and how understanding modern money is vital to…

 

The damage that has been done over decades is incalculable. The events of the past few years have revealed the inherent weaknesses of globalisation and its bedfellow, neoliberalism.

As the effects of climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, combine with the associated loss of biodiversity due to land mismanagement and exploitation, the degradation of soil, resulting from unhealthy farming practices and overuse of herbicides and fertilisers, along with changing global weather patterns, the world faces an uncertain future without adequate urgent action.

Ultimately, the UK does not exist in a bubble and must now see its future actions and policy decisions in a global context, but not the one we know. Not a continuation of the status quo which protects a rotten free trade system and sustains the wealth of the few, but an all-encompassing strategy for human and planetary fulfilment. It is not about pulling up the drawbridge. It is about ensuring that nations can help themselves to ride the economic and climate storms ahead, and work cooperatively to trade fairly and sustainably with their global neighbours.

Some might call this an unachievable pipe dream, given the current instability forged out of a toxic economic system and endless wars for global hegemony, and let’s be honest, theft of real resources. But it doesn’t have to be.

Our future depends on real and substantial change, not tinkering around the edges so that the global elites can maintain their power and influence. It begins with a public understanding of how the government spends, to challenge the status quo and set the scene for creating a fairer world, which has both a sustainable and liveable future. The way ahead may be bumpy but that’s no reason not to try.

 

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For more details, please see the EE website via the link below:

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The post The Government, like the Pied Piper, marches the nation back to Dickensian Britain appeared first on The Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies.